From March to June, KU paid outside counsel nearly $42,000 for COVID-19 consultation, records show

photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World

COVID-19 protocols adorn a doorway on the University of Kansas campus.

In the earliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Kansas hired two outside law firms to consult on policies related to the pandemic, according to records obtained by the Journal-World.

Those two firms — Husch Blackwell in Kansas City and a Washington D.C.- based firm called Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP — completed just over 87 hours of work for Kansas’ flagship university intermittently between March 19 and June 1, the records show.

The cost? $41,667.50, or an average of $478.94 per hour.

The records, obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request, shed almost no light on what KU contracted the two firms to advise on, as all specific services were redacted, citing attorney-client privilege.

Husch Blackwell was paid $16,678 for “COVID Advising” between April 3 and June 1, according to its invoices to KU. And Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP was paid $24,989.50 for “Policy Review” conducted between March 19 and April 8.

In the initial days and weeks of the pandemic, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod estimated that KU would lose “tens of millions” of dollars because of COVID-19. But on May 21, the university revealed that it was actually facing a budgeting shortfall of $120 million in Fiscal Year 2021, which began July 1.

A KU spokesperson did not respond to questions Monday seeking more specifics on why outside consultants were hired or why KU paid thousands of dollars in outside consulting fees while actively facing such a daunting financial challenge.

While the invoices obtained by the Journal-World give almost no indication of what work the firms completed for KU, invoices from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP do list names of the five attorneys who worked on KU’s case. The lead attorney in terms of hours worked specializes in complex intellectual property law, while the other four — which included one of the firm’s partners — specialize in various aspects of insurance policy, according to the firm’s website.

The Husch Blackwell invoices did not reveal the names of anyone who worked on KU’s case.

The university actively employs a general counsel office staffed with 12 attorneys and five staff members with specific areas of expertise, such as risk management and insurance, according to the office’s website.

While it isn’t known for certain what the two firms advised the university on, aspects of several COVID-19 plans were publicly announced during or soon after the time the firms completed work:

• On April 3, KU announced it would credit unused housing and dining plan costs to students’ accounts. KU, though, has refrained from offering refunds on the required campus fees that all students pay each semester — a dispute that is still working its way through the Douglas County courts in the form of a class action lawsuit.

KU is also using outside counsel as its defense in that case — Overland Park-based Foulston Siefkin LLP, according to court records. The university on July 30 filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but that motion has not yet been ruled on.

• On May 1, the university announced a five-step plan for reopening the campus for the fall semester — part of which included aspects such as a mask mandate when social distancing of at least 6 feet was not possible.

• On June 18, KU officially mandated on an interim basis that face coverings be worn any time someone is on campus and in common areas of a building, or anywhere where social distancing of at least 6 feet isn’t possible.

Also in that announcement, KU said it was in the process of drafting a definitive policy for the 2020-21 academic year — a policy that has not yet been released publicly.

The Journal-World also reported last week that KU officials grappled with constitutional concerns when deciding whether to mandate COVID-19 testing when students, staff and faculty return to campus for the fall semester. It’s not clear, though, when those concerns were first raised or if they related to any of the work completed by Husch Blackwell or Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

KU’s fall semester begins Aug. 24.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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